“On accident” vs. “by accident”—which do you prefer? There is no central authority for language, and the same is true for morality.

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Which sounds better: “I took your book by accident” or “I took your book on accident”?

We may want an objectively correct final arbiter that can define words and settle questions of usage with authority. This authority would always be correct and would be above human messiness, but this ultimate arbiter doesn’t exist. New words come into popular usage and definitions of old words change through a crowd-sourced negotiation.

It’s like morality. There is no final moral arbiter—not a Being, and not a book. The buck stops with us.

Oddities of English

To explore this parallel between words we define and morality we define, let’s first poke around some of the oddities of English.

What does peruse mean? Does it mean to look over in a cursory manner? Or does it mean the opposite: to study carefully? Yes, it does—both definitions are valid (go look it up; I’ll wait). If you get cranky seeing new definitions given to old words, note that “look over in a cursory manner” is the new definition.

Speaking of words that have two opposite meanings, there are lots of these contranyms. The Devil’s Dictionary (first published in 1906) defines infidel, “In New York, one who does not believe in the Christian religion; in Constantinople, one who does.” Here are a few more words that have two contradicting definitions:

  • Dust: dust a cake with powdered sugar vs. dust the furniture
  • Off: turn a light off vs. the bomb went off
  • Screen: screen from view vs. screen a movie

Is the change in words and language usage hopelessly messy and confusing? I think the opposite is true.

Word stories

So then what does peruse mean?! It means what we say it means, acknowledging that “we” don’t speak with a single voice. We can consult a dictionary, but in the case of peruse, it’ll just verify that these two opposite definitions are both valid, leaving to us the choice of one definition over the other or to find a synonym without this ambiguity.

Let’s peek under the couch cushions of English to find more interesting word stories.

  • Does decimate mean to destroy a tenth? Or to destroy almost all?
  • Do you get as annoyed as I do when “beg the question” is used to mean “encourage or invite the question”? It actually means “assume the issue we’re talking about”—in other words, to use circular logic. I hear it used in the first way almost exclusively … but of course that means that the public has spoken and I’ve lost, and this upstart new definition is the primary definition in the dictionary.
  • Regionalisms are words that vary based on location. For example, what do you call a soft drink? In the U.S., soda, pop, and coke dominate in different parts of the country. Is mayonnaise two syllables or three? Is it y’all or you guys? Is it puh-JAH-muz or puh-JAM-uz? Maps illustrate this tug of war.
  • Esquivalence is an invented word added to the 2001 New Oxford American Dictionary as a copyright trap. Here’s its invented definition: “Deliberate shirking of one’s official duties.” We could ask if esquivalence is a real word, but what more is a word than its spelling and definition? That’s enough to communicate, and it’s even in a dictionary.
  • Speaking of invented words, have you heard of this word origin? The story goes that in the late 1700s in Dublin, one man bet another that he could have a completely new word on everyone’s lips within 24 hours. That night, the man who’d made the boast enlisted street urchins to paint the word all over Dublin—on curbs, walls, sidewalks, and more. The word that everyone was talking about within 24 hours? Quiz.
  • William Shakespeare invented many words and was the first to put many more on paper. Some credit him with almost 2000 novel words, including accommodation, critic, fitful, lapse, obscene, and pious.
  • The new St. Paul’s cathedral, rebuilt after the 1666 Great Fire of London, was called by the king, “amusing, awful, and artificial.” That sounds odd until you realize that those words meant amazing, awe-inspiring, and artistic. Definitions drift.

Is the change in words and language usage hopelessly messy and confusing? I think the opposite is true. It’s crowd sourced, which means that the people who create the change are the consumers of that change.

On accident vs. by accident

Let’s return to on accident and by accident. The logic of on accident is that it parallels its opposite, on purpose. It’s also more popular among young people, which suggests that it will eventually win out. On the other hand, it is rarely used outside the U.S. (Of course, you can sidestep the confusion and just use accidentally.)

Where does meaning come from?

Imagine someone creates an upstart word and starts using it. The purpose of words is to communicate, and that happens when we share definitions. If they use their new word so that others can infer the meaning (or they take pains to define it), it might catch on like a meme.

In an extreme, someone can make up whatever words or definitions they please, as Humpty Dumpty did in Through the Looking Glass, but they’ll communicate better if they use well-known words and definitions.

This is how language works. It sounds haphazard, and yet we communicate easily. No natural language has an absolute source.

Concluded with a look at how Christianity plays with words and the logic of objective morality.

“When I use a word,”
Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone,
“it means just what I choose it to mean—
neither more nor less.”
— Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

CROSS EXAMINED After graduating from MIT, Bob Seidensticker designed digital hardware and is a co-contributor to 14 software patents. For more than a decade, he has explored the debate between Christianity...